At Home with Holmes

In the process of cleaning her room, sorting out trash from treasure…trove of childhood birthday gift, baubles and oddments kept in boxes under beds and in the back of closets (indecision of growing up), Amy came down to me holding in her open hands four or five miniature rag dolls with cute ceramic faces wearing precious little gingham dresses and lacy bloomers, “Mom, what shall I do with these? I don’t want them…They’re not in very good shape.”  She found all sorts of such little collections.
I don’t get involved too much, if I can help it, in the sorting of trash and treasure.  I think she will miss one or two of those things that seem of little value now, someday in a quiet moment and feel a pang or two perhaps, but mostly what she gets out of sight now will soon slip out of memory, as well. And she will be less burdened with inexcusable stuff when she moves out someday.
But, among her treasures she found a little, old book, one hundred years old this year, in fact. The title of the book is Autocrat of the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes. It is a collection of his work and includes a bit of his biography. It contains all kinds of things from prose about a courtship to poetry about a old horse drawn carriage, all written tongue in cheek and rare humor. It is perfect for family gatherings around the hearth on a winter evening.
Yesterday evening Amy read The One Hoss Shay to us. Both she and Brad need to practice oral reading, so tonight Brad read to us, Contentment. …I only ask that Fortune send a little more than I shall spend… And other such witticisms to spoof our brave contentment.

“The One Hoss Shay”
                by Oliver Wendell Holmes (1858)

Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss-shay,
That was built in such a logical way
It ran a hundred years to a day,
And then, of a sudden, it ah, but stay
I ‘ll tell you what happened without delay,
Scaring the parson into fits,
Frightening people out of their wits,
Have you ever heard of that, I say?

Seventeen hundred and fifty-five,
Georgius Secundus was then alive,
Snuffy old drone from the German hive;
That was the year when Lisbon-town
Saw the earth open and gulp her down,
And Braddock’s army was done so brown,
Left without a scalp to its crown.
It was on the terrible earthquake-day
That the Deacon finished the one-hoss-shay.

Now in building of chaises, I tell you what,
There is always somewhere a weakest spot,
In hub, tire, felloe, in spring or thill,
In panel, or crossbar, or floor, or sill,
A chaise breaks down but doesn’t wear out
In screw, bolt, thoroughbrace, lurking still,
Find it somewhere you must and will,
Above or below, or within or without,
And that’s the reason, beyond a doubt,
A chaise breaks down, but does n’t wear out.

But the Deacon swore (as Deacons do,
With an “I dew vum,” or an “I tell yeou,”
He would build one shay to beat the taown
‘n’ the keounty ‘n’ all the kentry raoun’;
It should be so built that it couldn’ break daown!
–“Fur,” said the Deacon, “t ‘s mighty plain
Thut the weakes’ place mus’ stan’ the strain;
‘n’ the way t’ fix it, uz I maintain,
Is only jest
T’ make that place uz strong uz the rest.”

So the Deacon inquired of the village folk
Where he could find the strongest oak,
That could n’t be split nor bent nor broke,
The deacon inquired of the village folk
That was for spokes and floor and sills;
He sent for lancewood to make the thills;
The crossbars were ash, from the straightest trees,
The panels of whitewood, that cuts like cheese,
But lasts like iron for things like these;
The hubs of logs from the “Settler’s ellum,”
Last of its timber,–they could n’t sell ’em,

Never an axe had seen their chips,
And the wedges flew from between their lips
Their blunt ends frizzled like celery-tips;
Step and prop-iron, bolt and screw,
Spring, tire, axle, and linchpin too,
Steel of the finest, bright and blue;
Thoroughbrace bison-skin, thick and wide;
Boot, top, dasher, from tough old hide
Found in the pit when the tanner died.

“Naow she’ll dew”
That was the way he “put her through.”
“There!” said the Deacon, “naow she ‘ll dew.”
Do! I tell you, I rather guess
She was a wonder, and nothing less!
“She was a wonder, and nothing less”

Colts grew horses, beards turned gray,
Deacon and deaconess dropped away,
“Deacons and deaconesses dropped away”
Children and grandchildren–where were they?
But there stood the stout old one-hoss-shay
As fresh as on Lisbon-earthquake-day!

EIGHTEEN HUNDRED; –it came and found
The Deacon’s Masterpiece strong and sound.
Eighteen hundred increased by ten;
“Hahnsum kerridge” they called it then.
Eighteen hundred and twenty came;
Running as usual; much the same.

Thirty and forty at last arrive,
And then come fifty, and FIFTY-FIVE.
Little of all we value here
Wakes on the morn of its hundredth year
Without both feeling and looking queer.
Its hundredth year

In fact, there’s nothing that keeps its youth
So far as I know, but a tree and truth.
(This is a moral that runs at large;
Take it. You ‘re welcome. No extra charge.)

“A general flavor of mild decay”
FIRST OF NOVEMBER,–the Earthquake-day.
There are traces of age in the one-hoss-shay
A general flavor of mild decay,
But nothing local, as one may say.
There could n’t be,–for the Deacon’s art
Had made it so like in every part
That there was n’t a chance for one to start.

For the wheels were just as strong as the thills,
And the floor was just as strong as the sills,
And the panels just as strong as the floor,
And the whippletree neither less nor more,
And the back-crossbar as strong as the fore,
And spring and axle and hub encore,

And yet, as a whole, it is past a doubt
In another hour it will be worn out!
“In another hour it will be worn out”

First of November, ‘Fifty-five!
This morning the parson takes a drive.
Now, small boys, get out of the way!
Here comes the wonderful one-hoss-shay,
Drawn by a rat-tailed, ewe-necked bay.
“Huddup!” said the parson. – Off went they.

“The parson takes a drive”
The parson was working his Sunday’s text,
Had got to fifthly, and stopped perplexed
At what the–Moses–was coming next.
All at once the horse stood still,
Close by the meet’n’-house on the hill
“All at once the horse stood still”
– First a shiver, and then a thrill,
Then something decidedly like a spill,
And the parson was sitting upon a rock,
At half-past nine by the meet’n’-house clock,
Just the hour of the Earthquake shock!
“something decidedly like a spill”

— What do you think the parson found,
When he got up and stared around?
The poor old chaise in a heap or mound,
As if it had been to the mill and ground!

You see, of course, if you ‘re not a dunce,
How it went to pieces all at once,
All at once, and nothing first,
Just as bubbles do when they burst.
“Just as bubbles do when they burst”
End of the wonderful one-hoss-shay.
Logic is logic. That’s all I say.
“End of the wonderful one-hoss-shay”

In case you read this far. Don’t you think it needs two readers? Narrator and deacon?

3 thoughts on “At Home with Holmes”

  1. Love this! Classic literature is the best…. if I closed my eyes, I could just hear the twinkle in Amy's voice as she was reading 🙂


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